Wednesday, March 30, 2005

When a Whole Way of Life is Destroyed

Haida talking to Physicians for Human Rights researchers at Kashuni refugee camp.
© for Physicians for Human Rights

John Heffernan of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) contributes to an editorial published in the International Herald Tribune, When a Whole Way of Life is Destroyed:

Sitting in front of his United Nations-supplied canvas tent in a refugee camp along the Chad-Sudan border, a frail farmer, Nourein, 70, told us how his village was destroyed by eight months of aerial bombardments followed by a ground assault. Without protection from the attacks and assurance that his livelihood will be restored, Nourein is not likely to return home. "I have lost my home, my camel, my cows. My crops have been burned, and the medical clinic has been looted," said Nourein, a father of six, grandfather of 20 and lifelong resident of Furawiya, in North Darfur.

Nourein's story highlights a little-noticed effect of the genocide that has killed 300,000 people in Darfur: what the UN Genocide Convention calls the inflicting of "conditions of life" calculated to bring about a group's demise. The systematic plundering and destruction of houses, wells, crops, livestock and assets, combined with restricted access to humanitarian aid and continuing violence, has devastated the way of life of non-Arab Darfurians. The cultural identity tied to their villages and the fabric of their social structures have been virtually eliminated

PHR has made available a preliminary report of their investigations at Furawiya, as well as a a slide show featuring photos by Michael Wadleigh. They have more information about the situation in Darfur at their site.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:10 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Kurt Gödel's Ontological Argument

Mathematician Christopher Small provides an unabashedly neoplatonic--not to mention lucid and engaging--take on Kurt Gödel's ontological argument.

First reactions: Is this really an argument about God, or is it rather about the Good, perfection, or the perfect being? What is the difference between supremacy of being and perfection of being? Why isn't this a simple case of Being or plain old vanilla lowercase being? What does it mean to talk about an imperfect being? Are philosophers in full agreement about what Parmenides meant by the concept of being, or should claims about the nature of being be regarded with a degree of skepticism?

You see, I have a sense that some kind of order --categorical, logical, natural-- is being superimposed upon or subtended within a discussion of being. Supposedly this is well understood and is addressed by Gödel's positivity operator. Being a logical fool (in a sense) puts me in an akward position. To put it bluntly, I cannot at this time accept the premises of Ansel's Axiom 2 (parallel to Gödel's axiom G0). I question the privileging of necessary being over contigent being, or essence over existence, and cannot see this as being an argument in favor of God's existence. If God does not exist in the strong sense, God quite simply does not exist. And if God were to exist in the weak sense of being merely essential, I can't quite see the objection to remaining agnostic about God's existence, as this view of God may be more or less synonymous with a conception of pure Being, which, other attributions being for the present ancillary, one may treat as a genre of philosophical argument or a specific insight rather than an article of faith.

Small I reckon knows where I'm coming from, and in his conclusion he anticipates the existential objection:

The question of whether every individual has an essence was at the heart of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism. While he agreed that ordinary individuals such as rocks, trees, dogs and cats have essences, and that essence precedes existence for such things, Sartre argued that for human beings, existence precedes essence in the sense that we exist first and define ourselves secondly.

I feel that's correct, but it may be more relevant to say that existential ontology concieves of existence as surpassing being, or that any proper phenomenological ontology is necessarily transcendental.

But what am I if not a certain internal negation of the in-itself? Without this in-itself which I deny, I should vanish into nothingness. In our Introduction we pointed out that consciousness can serve as the "ontological proof" of the existence of an in-itself. In fact, if there is no consciousness of something, then it is necessary at the start that this "something" have a real being--that is, a being not relative to consciousness. But we see at present that this proof has a larger bearing: if I am able to do something--anything--it is necessary that I exercise my action upon beings whose existence in general is independent of my existence and in particular independent of my action. My action can reveal this other existence to me but does not condition it. To be free is to-be-free-to-change. Freedom implies therefore the existence of an environment to be changed: obstacles to be cleared, tools to be used. Of course it is freedom which reveals them as obstacles, but by its free choice it can only interpret the meaning of their being. It is necessary that they be there, wholly brute, in order that there may be freedom.

Being and Nothingness (trans. Barnes, p. 506)

Sartre's easy slippage between the "I" and "we" should not pass uncommented. The we of Sartre is the one that comprehends the various other Sartres and communicates that comprehension to his readers. Do we, dear reader, need an ontological argument for the existence of Sartre the Author as opposed to the singular Sartre the author of his being, who, though arguably necessary, remains for us more or less in the realm of the heuristic?

Anyway, it seems to me that the potential problems Small sees stemming from the empiricist proposition of esse est percipi may also be explored through phenomological ontology.

Finally, I just have to wonder under what conditions is the Pythagoran intuition expressed or construed as nihilistic?

I don't really understand formal logic, so it should go without saying that I have hardly done justice to Small's presentation. My sense is that he has given adequate consideration to my objections, however, he has done so in a mode that is still somewhat foreign to me. I am sure to be revisiting his treatment of this topic many times.

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:20 AM. 0 comments

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Fish heaps

Homo ludens is alive and kicking, or so I've gleaned from Arthur Krentz's Play and Education in Plato's Republic. (For a staidlier view of Socratic pedagogy, seeEducation in Plato's Republic, by Ariel Dillon). The weak link in Krentz's exposition is of course Glaucon. Nobody in their right mind takes Glaucon seriously, which rather throws the whole kaboodle into doubt, and some of the kit besides. What kind of education is Glaucon receiving, really?

Plato's soft spot for submental dialectical interlocuters undercuts all sorts of nifty conclusions one might wish to draw about Socratic method--but that's according to a student of philosophy. Yaks can be a little slow at times.

Consider the following passage from Frederic Jameson's The Prison-House of Language, which also plays upon the allegory of the cave in its way:

Perhaps for the layman nothing illustrates the dependence of the mind on such binary oppositions so well as the apparent excepetion, in which our differential perceptions click on and off in the void. Thus, by thinking the words "fish" and "sheep" rapidly over, first in the singular and then in the plural, the mind can be felt instinctively to work up a feeling of opposition where none is physically or materially present.
Had Professor Jameson had chosen a Yak instead of a layman to be his imaginary interlocuter, he surely would have concocted a clearer example to make his point. "Fish heap?" "Fish heaps?" All I get are images of fish heaps--until I let my imagination roam of flounder or whatever it is that it does with fish heaps--Numerate? Envision? Drift off to sleep?-- Fluffy coy dream bubbles orange orange orange....Who has the baskets? Who has the baskets?

Perhaps I've illustrated what Plato meant to admonish against by his distinction between frivilous and serious play--just a minute--Serious play? And Plato wants us to believe that the sophists are what? Wrong? So long as humankind's great thinkers rely on Glaucons and their ilk to make their points, this is probably the best you can expect. Fish heaps.

posted by Fido the Yak at 7:16 PM. 0 comments

Lovers, New York, 1956

I had wanted to post some of Imogen Cunningham's calla lilies (many of which can be found in this gallery), but I stumbled upon an exhibition at the John Stevenson Gallery called Imogen in New York, which features the photo above. Compositionally it has elements characteristic of Cunningham's still lifes, portraits and nudes, suggesting some of the same fascinations, the hands for instance. The New York photos seem more direct to me somehow, if less urgent. More vibrant. Enjoy.
posted by Fido the Yak at 3:06 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Thersites in his Labyrinth of Fury

"What an edifying spectacle" said blogger RMJ regarding the demise of Terri Schiavo. He meant it to be ironic, and he said Thersites meant it that way too (though Fido is unsure of the attribution). The ironic attitude leaves much to be desired, but the ironic, critical response seems irrepressible, ineluctable, however that works. Perhaps it's a defense against actually becoming the inhuman one is compelled to imagine.

Still, there is something to be said for conviction. Joe Ford writes forcefully about Bigotry and the Murder of Terri Schiavo, and Who Crushes a Butterfly with a Hammer? asks Catez Stevens.

Leaning more towards the ironic, Bob Frodeman wonders whether Schiavo's demise represents a turning point in the confrontation between religious and technoscientific worldviews, while Carl at Fort Kant takes notice of a critique of humanism, and adopts an ambivalent stance towards what has been identified as the humanist stain.

Fido the Yak is at a loss. He turned to the pages of The Vital Illusion hoping to find some answers between "The Final Solution" and "The Murder of the Real." There were no real answers. Some nausea. A conviction that thanatos is, like the pursuit of happiness, for the living. And while Baudrillard draws some interesting distinctions between objective and critical irony, Fido fears that if he rejects the premise of inexorable reversability the whole exercize would be for naught. Baudrillard becomes useless to him.

Oh wouldn't it be fun to open up Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle or Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish? Not really. Anyway, Fido's library is a little thin. Perhaps some there are some notes in the back pages of The History of Sexuality that could be dragged into the fray. Yet the whole sordid business of throwing up marginalia in the face of human tragedy really does get on one's nerves.

So, upon reflection, it seems that RMJ may be on to something by pointing to Theristes. The figure of Theristes, as Joyce Carol Oates argued in The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," "is used by Shakespeare to break illusions, to break the spells cast by the eloquent and self-deceived rhetoricians of the early scenes." He presents us with

the most base, the most existential vision in the play, and if we hesitate to believe that it is also Shakespeare's vision, we must admit that he has spent a great deal of time establishing it. His function is to call everything down to earth and to trample it. In his discordant music he celebrates what Troilus and others have been experiencing, and it is certainly Shakespeare's belief, along with Thersites', that "all the argument is a cuckold and a whore."

No doubt many a blogger would cast themselves as Thersites. Fido demurs. To continue with Oates' reading:

The play, with its large number of characters, submits various interpretations of itself to the audience. The most strident of the points of view is Thersites, who maintains one note and emerges as a kind of choral instrument to insist upon the betrayal of the spirit by the body. The violent rhythms of the play—its jagged transitions and contrasts between sweetness and bawdiness, pomposity and blunt physical action—are most obviously represented by Thersites in his labyrinth of fury. If he reminds us of anyone else in Shakespeare, it is Iago, who cannot love and who must therefore drag everyone down to his bestial level. But Thersites is more mysterious a character than Iago because he figures not at all in the action—the play would be different without him, but not radically different. He comes onto the stage and mocks the rituals that have characterized the first part of the play; we feel, after Troilus' inflamed words and the Greeks' pompous speeches, that this is a man who speaks the truth, who sees at once through all masks. Because it is static, his nihilism soon becomes wearisome. But he is not intended to be an entertaining character; he is little more than a voice that has attached itself to this war simply in order to interpret it.


Thersites' rage, however, is impotent, a rage to which no one seems to listen. He calls down curses upon the heroes who surround him in an effort to deflate their fraudulent romanticism and to make them less than human. Man in Thersites' vision is a catalogue of parts; he is the maddened puritan who cannot endure the discrepancy between the ideals of man and the physical counterparts of these ideals, and who wants nothing so much as to rip to shreds the pretensions of the heroes and to substitute for their grandiose views of themselves a devastating image of man as a physical creature unable to transcend the meanness of his body.

Well, Oates goes on to offer many more insights into the play and the tragedy of human existence. It's truly an edifying critique, so Fido suggests that you please do read it.

posted by Fido the Yak at 8:51 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, March 19, 2005

She Hate Me

Naturally I expected to hate She Hate Me because I like Spike Lee joints and I respect Roger Ebert, who introduced the film thusly:

Spike Lee's "She Hate Me" will get some terrible reviews. Scorched earth reviews. Its logic, style, presumption and sexual politics will be ridiculed. The Tomatometer will be down around 20. Many of the things you read in those reviews may be true from a conventional point of view. Most of the critics will be on safe ground. I will seem to be wrong. Seeming to be wrong about this movie is one of the most interesting things I've done recently. I've learned from it.

I love learning as much as the next Yak, but that's a pretty shaky ground on which to premise one's enjoyment of a film. The She Hate Me paradox is this: In order to properly appreciate being among the contrarians, one must have some empathy for feelings of hate--exactly some empathy, because to fully empathize with those who would turn off their brains or forget how to enjoy a movie would hardly be edifying--and so one engages with the film completely by never completely identifying with any single reaction, character, mood, or perspective. It's like you have to bamboozle yourself to avoid being bamboozled.

In other words She Hate Me is a typical Spike Lee joint. Behind the offkilter facades and psychocultural routines one senses a yearning for the real, a humanistic impulse which is a little different without being entirely strange (for humans as well as bovines, I presume). And being a Spike Lee joint, it suffers the invidiousness of being held up to such masterpieces as He Got Game. So naturally I expected to hate it, and of course I did not.

She Hate Me, phony as a three dollar bill, ranks among the heavyweights in the Spike Lee canon. I'll support that contention with specific obsevations should anybody care to debate it. For now though, I'll just throw out this one question: How would you characterize the relationship between personhood and moral conduct? Before you answer, be sure to check out She Hate Me.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:41 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Fido the Yak is not the Mad Yak

Fido the Yak is not related to the Mad Yak. Fido the Yak does not even know the Mad Yak. Fido the Yak is not mad. He has no sisters or brothers or uncles. He does however have several persons. He is one of them, the third. He is singular, masculine and nominative--but that's subject to change.

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:45 AM. 0 comments